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Great Leaders Emerge During Crisis


Crises are very tough. Whether we are dealing with the death of a family member, receive news about a sick friend, or receive notice about the company downsizing, at some point in our lives we all face difficult challenges where we have to pause to figure things out. But what do you do when you are in the wake of a worldwide catastrophe and you are now your brother's and your sister's keeper?


When COVID-19 hit, leaders across all sectors were left scratching their heads and asking themselves, "What to do"? Very few people in our lifetime (unless you lived through the pandemic of 1915) had ever experienced a crisis of this magnitude – let alone had to manage a group of people during one of these events. Like seriously, where is the play-by-play book to help us all through a trial of this magnitude? The reality is, there isn't a book of answers for every situation, especially novel virus COVID-19.


While executive leaders have all experienced organizational challenges from time to time, no one – not even leadership in the White House – was prepared for COVID-19. The truth of the matter is history seems to repeat itself. Throughout history, many of the world's greatest leaders have emerged during crisis events. Most literature written about these leaders has been recorded after the fact. Why? Because unfortunately, we do not know what we are made of until we are faced with adversity.


In "Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times", by Nancy Koehn, she profiles five of the world's greatest leaders, why they were so effective and how leaders today can tap in to some of these key skills. Each of these leaders had a few things in common. They embraced their fear of the unknown, rose to the occasion at hand, and put the welfare of the people they served before themselves. In other words, they had to build the plane while flying it, so to speak.


Today, COVID-19 is providing a hardcore lesson for organizational leaders about how to manage both themselves and their people during this present day pandemic. While there is not one solution to resolve all the issues associated with COVID-19, leaders can take one day at a time and try implementing some of the following recommendations.


  • Acknowledge people's fear, but offer encouragement. One of biggest issues we all face during a crisis is fear. If you breakdown what fear means, it stands for False. Evidence. Appearing. Real. It is very difficult to see the world collapsing around us as false evidence. We are watching the chain of events unfold right before our eyes. But why should we view fear as false evidence appearing real? It's the glass half full vs. the glass half empty analogy. The glass is half full. But it is also half empty because the liquid is right in the middle. So depending how you view it, you see things very differently.


  • Promoting positive thinking by helping people to see that trouble is never permanent and that there is light at the end of the tunnel is one way leaders can raise the spirits of employees. Providing employees the support of a listening ear is also helpful. Bringing on outside counselors to allow employees to talk through some of their fears and anxiety is also very helpful. This way, as a leader, you are sending the message that you care about your people's mental health and emotional well-being.


  • Provide your people with the tools to succeed despite the crisis. One of the biggest lessons leaders have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the business world can continue, with or without the brick and mortar. With advance technology platforms and virtual meeting platforms such as ZOOM, Skype, Facebook Live, telehealth, and the support of many other technological tools, working from home has been very effective. Most of the issues arise when employees lack the proper tools to work with the same high level of efficiency as if they were in the office. Providing all employees with the proper internet support, necessary training, and other tools they need can help your people succeed at their jobs despite what is happening on the outside.


  • Be brutally honest about the state of business during crisis. While every leader desires to maintain some level of confidentiality with high-level business affairs, during a crisis, being as transparent as possible helps to ease the tension of the circumstances at hand, and could build a higher level of trust between leadership and employees.


  • For example, if layoffs are inevitable as a result of the crisis, then that information needs to be relayed sooner than later. No one wants to hear about they might be losing their job through the grapevine because the information accidentally leaked by the press, or from some other source.


  • If absent, leaders can rest assured their credibility is pretty much diminished. Also, demonstrating honesty can harness increased support of future goals of the organization from both customers and employees.


  • Communication is key. We have all heard the expression that silence is golden. During a crisis, silence can create an internal disaster! When leadership is silent when they should be providing guidance and offering more information to employees, it leaves employees with no other choice but to draw their conclusions. Most often, this is how lies and rumors are born.


  • Communication is a priority for leaders, and a way to promote the organization's other important initiatives that may impact them, their family, and the organization overall during crises.


  • Build an internal community of unity. The expression "we are stronger together than we are separate", or "where there is unity there is strength" should all be important internal philosophies of the organization during crisis. Adopting these types of philosophies brings people together as a village and helps the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak. It also promotes the adage, "I am my brother's keeper" because it creates the power of giving of ourselves to help someone else during a time when they may not be able to stand on their own. In this way, we are somehow able to stop worrying about our problems and the overall crisis, and are now honing in on our co-worker. This is a step in the right direction for transforming a culture into a family-like, community-focused, environment.


  • Model the behavior you want to see. One of the first lessons learned by leaders is that we should lead by example. Leadership is as leadership does. If we want to create a culture that is family-oriented, professional, respectful of our colleagues, and that cares about the welfare of others, we have to live it. This is one of those things where we have to completely learn to manage our behavior first to ensure that we are exhibiting the core values that we are preaching to others, especially during a crisis. So if we want our people to feel less stressed about the crisis, then we must show them that it is possible to maintain a positive mental attitude, that it is okay to share our thoughts and fears with a professional, to extend help to someone else, or to maintain a high level of integrity and honesty despite how bad things may be.


While history has displayed many powerful leaders during crisis, we should expect to see great leaders born during COVID-19. Most importantly, we should work to become one of those emerging leaders that everyone will talk about long after COVID-19 is over.


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